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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Tours offers amazing views of Glacier


A bear sighting was guaranteed by this driver, but the bear hug was a surprise. 
 (The Spokesman-Review)
A bear sighting was guaranteed by this driver, but the bear hug was a surprise. (The Spokesman-Review)
Mike Brodwater Correspondent

It is confusing. The Web site title is “1930s White Glacier National Park Red Buses,” an almost incompre- hensible phrase unless you have been there and done that. Touring Glacier National Park doesn’t get any better than this. Take a red bus with a jammer over Going to the Sun Highway. It is all about incredible scenery, historic buses and wonderfully crazy, informative drivers.

Glacier National Park is just over a four-hour drive from North Idaho, yet many have never traveled into Montana to visit this nationally loved recreation area. There are glacier-formed towering mountains, wildlife, glacier-fed lakes, waterfalls and still some glaciers to see and hike to. A paved road wanders through the very heart of the wilderness, climbing and crossing the Continental Divide.

The road – the Going to the Sun Highway – is an engineering feat, blasted out of the rock mountain faces in many places and tunneled through in others. Waterfalls that splash onto the pavement and vertical walls both above and below the road make for a spectacular experience. There are regular sightings of bighorn sheep and mountain goats on the cliffs above the road and, at the Continental Divide, snowfields that linger well into the summer.

If you could pick a car to drive on this road, it would be a convertible because much of what there is to see requires looking up.

The notion of using an open-air touring buses in national parks isn’t a new concept. In the 1930s the National Park Service partnered with the White Motor Co. to build canvas-topped sedans to provide public transportation with unobstructed views within the parks. More than 500 of the vehicles were built and used in many Western parks, including Yellowstone, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion and Glacier. By the 1950s most of the 17-passenger buses were worn out, and the service was discontinued except in Glacier. Tours aboard the bright red buses became for many a part of what defined the Glacier Park experience. The drivers often ground the gears on the steep up-and-down road grades and got to be known as “jammers.”

The buses in Glacier were carefully maintained with parts scavenged from other buses used to extend their lives. But in 1999, concerns about vehicle fatigue and safety forced the buses into retirement.

The Ford Motor Co., living up to its commitment as a “Proud Partner of America’s National Parks,” took on the challenge of refurbishing the buses and with a subcontractor restored 33 of the vehicles. They made every effort to maintain or replicate the original, but with more fuel-efficient engines and modern safety features. The buses are back and visitors can experience not only the spectacular scenery but also the colorful education provided by the drivers. The only thing missing is the gears being jammed. The buses now have automatic transmissions, but the drivers will forever be called “jammers.”

The jammers keep their passengers entertained and informed as they maneuver along the narrow, curving highway through traffic, animal sightings and demanding tourists. They know such facts as: There are 1.3 million acres that make up the park; Going to the Sun Highway is 52 miles long; there are more than 2,000 species of flowers in the park and 1,000 campsites. They are also masters of information about park ecology, park animals, Blackfeet Indian legends and really bad jokes.

The buses can also be used as shuttles to get to the various hotels found in the park. For example, someone arriving by train in East Glacier can take a bus to the lodge at Many Glacier or to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Alberta.

A trip on a historic red bus takes tourists deep into a premier Rocky Mountain wilderness landscape where glaciers have cut and shaped towering, near-vertical cliffs, like the one called “The Weeping Wall,” where water cascades onto the road. Jump on a White Glacier National Park red bus and enjoy the scenery.

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